The First Lady
The Term “First Lady” Unlike the President, the role of the First Lady is not addressed in the Constitution. Both the role of the Presidential spouse and the title have shifted and formalized over the history of the United States. The spouse
of the President is not elected to serve and yet, because the White House is both the residence and the office of the
President, public service is inherent to the role. Traditionally, the wife of the Presidents served as the hostess and was in charge of all things domestic; but that role has grown. Beyond defining the role of First Lady, even
counting them is difficult as more women than just the spouses of the Presidents filled the role of White House
Hostess, particularly in the 19th century. Widowers and bachelors and others would call upon surrogates to fill the
role when a spouse was unavailable -- a role that itself is a social surrogate for many of the ceremonial functions of the Presidency. When President George Washington was elected, the public, still steeped in the British culture surrounding
royalty and aristocracy, referred to his wife Martha as “Lady Washington” as a sign of respect. This tradition
stuck and both Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison were referred to as “Lady Adams” and “Lady Madison”
respectively. Since Thomas Jefferson was a widower by the time he was elected, and James Madison was his
Secretary of State, Dolley Madison took on the role of White House Hostess when Jefferson’s daughter was out
of town and unable to perform the task. When her husband became President, she was able to seamlessly
transition into the role of First Lady, as she had already been performing the duties. Dolley was renowned for
her excellent dinners and ability to bring opposing political players together. Because of this she is often pointed
to as a model spouse who was both able to handle the domestic and ceremonial roles of the Presidency while
also influencing policy and politics -- all while not overstepping the boundaries. At her funeral in 1848, President
Zachary Taylor eulogized her as the "first lady of our land," bringing us a step closer to the current term for the
Even at this time the term “lady” was problematic as it connoted the royal stratification of England that this
fledgling democracy had rebelled against. The First Ladies themselves often did not like being called “lady,” even
into the 20th and 21st centuries. Jackie Kennedy famously quipped that it sounded like the name of a prized
race horse. Other terms, such as “Presidentress” and “Mrs. President” were used early on. Both terms worked
when the woman filling the role of White House Hostess was the spouse of the President, but came short to
describe bachelor James Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane. To remedy the problem, Leslie’s Illustrated
Newspaper used the term “First Lady of the White House” to describe her, the first time the term First Lady was
seen in print. The term has stuck ever since.
When Theodore and Edith Roosevelt moved into the White
House in 1901, they brought six children with them. The crowded
living and office space in the White House led President
Roosevelt to construct a new office building in 1902. Today that
building is called the West Wing. Courtesy The Library of Congress
First Ladies were often the most famous women in America, and were able to influence, or at least were perceived to be
able to influence, the President. Due to their position and proximity, proponents of causes would implore First Ladies
for their aid and assistance, and sometimes were successful at finding a champion. Harriet Lane took an interest in the
needs of Native Americans. Mary Todd Lincoln advocated education, employment, and housing opportunities for freed
slaves. Helen Taft inspected unsafe working conditions and used her influence to get health and safety laws passed.
As the role of the First Lady as both an advocate and a ceremonial replacement for the President continued to
grow, Edith Roosevelt became the first to have a federally hired social secretary. Lou Hoover then hired additional
secretaries from her own funds, growing the staff of the First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to have a
personal secretary in addition to social and administrative secretaries, and Jackie Kennedy hired the first press
secretary. Soon appointments secretaries, speech writers, and, with Rosalyn Carter, a Chief of Staff came on
board, filling out a full staff to support the First Ladies’ projects and initiatives, as well as duties she performed
on behalf of the President. Like their 19th century counterparts, 20th century First Ladies sponsored national
and international causes, such as environmentalism, volunteerism, women’s rights, literacy, and treatment for
drug dependency. Laura Bush worked to further libraries, education, and the National Parks, and Michelle Obama is
currently working to counter childhood obesity through healthy eating and exercise. Often these causes will be
interwoven into the ceremonial functions of the White House, such as themed Christmas decorations under Mrs. Bush, or a ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Play, Let’s Move’ Easter Egg Roll under Mrs. Obama.
The American public has also been fascinated with the First Ladies as trendsetters in style, fashion, entertaining, and
home design. After Frances Folsom Cleveland married President Cleveland in June 1886, women imitated her
hairstyle and advertisers used her image to sell products. Mamie Eisenhower was named by the Dress Institute as one
of the 12 Best Dressed Women in America in 1952 and was lauded for her use of color coordination and matching accessories, which then began to be imitated across the country. Jackie Kennedy worked to historically preserve the White House and her special tours of the House were televised. She was also considered extremely fashionable and her style is still imitated today. Nancy Reagan was known for her signature color red, which appeared in the White House China service and in her wardrobe.
Inaugural gowns have been a popular fascination spanning the centuries and many are held preserved in the
Smithsonian. What a First Lady wore to inauguration often set the tone for that social season in Washington
even going back to the 19th century. Over time, the interest in First Ladies has gone beyond the traditionally
feminine roles of fashion and home, to include their educational background and what they are reading. The
three most recent First Ladies have all had masters’ degrees, and their reading lists, whether officially released
on the White House website or gathered by avid fans, are extremely popular, as are their biographies, whether
they be autobiographies, official, or unofficial.
As the personification of American power, the President of the United States and his family face continual
scrutiny and criticism. First Ladies have been criticized for doing too much and for not doing enough. Some have
been praised for their looks or fashion, and others have been less kindly treated. Each woman has had to make
her own rules and define her own role without both the guidance and limitations of the Constitution. As it has in
the past, this role will continue to change and adapt -- someday there may even be a “First Gentleman.”
"The First Lady." The First Lady & Her Role. George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
National First Ladies’ Library, The Role of First Lady and Origin of the Title "First Lady"
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1. How did the position of “First Lady” come about and what roles for the First Lady are laid out in the Constitution.
2. What is the role of the First Lady as Hostess?
3. How has the role of the First Lady developed and what types of things have different First Ladies done to expand the role of the First Lady? Use specific examples of First Ladies and their contributions?
4. Using your own ideas and information from the article above create a job description for the First Lady/First Gentleman of the United States. Create a list of the 4 qualifications and an explanation of 4 duties of the spouse of the President.
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